In much of America in the 1940s, racial segregation was strictly enforced, both by Jim Crow laws and by age-old custom. The civil rights movement was still in its infancy. Laws ensuring voting rights and equal access to jobs and public facilities were decades away.
Emma Belle Petcher of Mobile recalled, “Two separate, but not equal. White and the blacks. The blacks could not eat in the restaurants. They could not drink in the white fountain. They was separate fountains. Separate sections of the bus that they could not ride in. The trains, if they were big enough, they had separate coach. Separate everything,”
Though the policies of segregation were specifically intended for African Americans in the South, discrimination was not limited to southern blacks. Blacks living in northern cities, as well as Latinos, Native Americans, Filipinos, Chinese Americans, Jewish Americans, Japanese Americans and other minorities, experienced the racial prejudice of the era as well.
At the start of WWII, many African Americans in particular had mixed feelings about supporting the war effort when their own country did not offer them the freedom America was fighting for overseas. A March 1942 editorial in the New Negro World summed up these frustrations:
“If my nation cannot outlaw lynching, if the uniform [of the army] will not bring me the respect of the people that I serve, if the freedom of America will not protect me as a human being when I cry in the wilderness of ingratitude; then I declare before both God and man…TO HELL WITH PEARL HARBOR.”
Soon after America joined the war, James Thompson, a cafeteria worker in Kansas, coined the phrase “Double Victory” in a letter to the African-American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier.
“The V for victory sign is being displayed prominently in so-called democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression, slavery and tyranny. If this V sign means that to those now engaged in this great conflict, then let we colored Americans adopt the double VV for a double victory. The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within. For surely those who perpetrate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.”
Two months after his letter was printed, Thompson joined the army, determined both to help win the war and make America live up to its democratic promise. And the phrase he introduced — the Double V — was embraced as a powerful symbol by millions of other Americans during the course of the war.
Defense industries proved to be a critical battleground in the struggle for a victory for civil rights at home. As preparations for war accelerated in early 1941, minority groups hoped they would benefit as much as the rest of the country from the new jobs in military production. But black workers were often shut out of defense plants, and when they could find work, it was often in the most menial, dangerous, and low-paying jobs. One aviation executive stated, “While we are in complete sympathy with the Negro, it is against company policy to employ them as aircraft workers or mechanics… regardless of their training.” The Standard Steel Company declared, “We have not had a Negro worker in twenty-five years, and we do not plan to start now.”
NAACP chapters began to protest at defense plants, and in the spring of 1941 the union leader and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph threatened to stage a massive protest at the White House, calling for an end to discrimination in the armed forces and in defense industries. With the march looming, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, outlawing discrimination in war industries and establishing a Fair Employment Practices Commission to investigate complaints and take remedial action. Civil rights leaders applauded the move and cancelled the march. The order did not address segregation in the armed forces and had little enforcement power, but it was the first federal gesture toward civil rights since Reconstruction and represented a significant victory for the rights of African Americans.
Executive Order 8802 had little impact at Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company (ADDSCO) in Mobile. African-American leaders asked the company to allow black workers into its apprentice program to learn skilled trades, and the company simply stopped hiring apprentices. ADDSCO employee Clyde Odom remembers, “And so Mr. Dunlap [the owner], he just says ‘that's it.’ He wiped it out. There was no more apprentice program. Because he wasn't gonna let blacks become mechanics.”
In May 1943, the racial storm that had been building for months at the Mobile shipyard finally broke. Nearly seven thousand African Americans worked at ADDSCO, all in unskilled jobs. For six months, management had avoided complying with a government directive to upgrade those who were qualified. Then one evening without a word of explanation, twelve black men were promoted to welding jobs and sent to work on one of the shipways as a separate work crew. Everything went peacefully at first, and when their shift ended they went home without incident. But wild rumors were flying through he yards as they left: that thousands of black workers were on the way; that white women would be forced to work alongside them; that one of the black welders had already killed a white woman.
Odom was working in a machine shop when he heard angry voices outside. “What in the world’s going on here?” he asked. “There’s a big fight out front,” someone answered. Odom rushed up onto the fantail of an unfinished hull to get a better view. Below him, he recalled, thousands of whites had turned on their black fellow workers, who were fleeing the shipways and trying to get back to the mainland.
“I’m standing up there watching, and I never saw people so mad and agitated in my life,” Odom recalled. “And they’d have sticks, like three-foot long, they would knock them down to their knees… I saw men and women, bleeding, blood running down their face. And they didn’t stand a chance coming down that gauntlet — men and women on each side, beating them with sticks. And a good many of the blacks went out and jumped off the piers and tried to swim the river. The Coast Guard was out there picking them up.”
Until their safety could be guaranteed, African-American workers refused to return to ADDSCO. In the end, most did come back — the shipyard needed their labor. But ADDSCO would remain strictly segregated. Four separate shipways were created where blacks were free to hold every kind of position — except foreman. Blacks working in the rest of the shipyard remained largely confined to the kind of unskilled tasks they had always performed. The Pittsburgh Courier denounced the compromise as a victory for “Nazi racial theory and another defeat for the principle embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”
In the following months, there were racial confrontations in industrial areas all across the country – Springfield, Massachusetts and Port Arthur, Texas; Hubbard, Ohio and Newark, New Jersey; and in Detroit where 34 people were killed and more than 200 wounded.
Violence erupted in the Latino community also. The most notorious incident was the “zoot-suit riots” in Los Angeles in the spring of 1943. Tensions had been high in Los Angeles in the wake of isolated, violent confrontations between Anglo sailors on leave and Mexican-American “zoot-suitors” — hip, young teens dressed in baggy pants and long-tailed coats. Then, for ten nights in June, sailors cruised Mexican-American neighborhoods and ruthlessly attacked anyone wearing a zoot suit, tearing the clothes off their bodies and viciously beating them. Some Latino youth fought back, and when the violence ended, many Mexican Americans and Anglo servicemen were in hospital beds, and bitter resentment lingered for years.
The zoot suit riots came at a time of an emerging civil rights consciousness among Latinos in the U.S. For generations, Mexican Americans in the Southwest had faced de facto segregation, often excluded from jobs, public facilities, and housing reserved for Anglos. Many cities and towns maintained separate — and unequal — school systems for Mexican-American children, and restaurants, movie theaters, and even cemeteries excluded Latinos. The participation of Latinos in the armed forces, combined with the prosperity brought by the war and an increasing sense of confidence among a new generation of Mexican Americans, began to undermine the old patterns of discrimination. In the years after the war, a Latino civil rights movement would emerge, spearheaded by veterans whose experiences in the service raised their expectations about their rights to participate fully in the life of their nation.
New contingents of Mexican immigrants began to arrive in the United States as a result of war effort as well. As in defense manufacturing, the agricultural sector was hampered by a labor shortage as millions of Americans either joined the military or went to work at defense-related jobs. In the Southwest, the government instituted the “bracero” program, bringing in guest workers from Mexico to provide much needed farm labor. Workers were recruited in Mexico and brought to the U.S. where they were provided housing, food and wages in exchange for their work in American agriculture. The program helped keep American food production at high levels throughout the war. In Sacramento, Mexican farm laborers had been brought in to work the land vacated by thousands of Japanese-American farmers who were forced into internment camps at the start of the war.
Despite the obstacles presented by segregation and discrimination, the war economy offered possibilities to minorities that had previously been unimaginable. Many Americans – and African Americans in particular – were able to relocate to other parts of the country for better jobs and new opportunities. Jeroline Green had come to Sacramento from Coffeyville, Kansas, just one of some eight million Americans who migrated to the Pacific coast during the war in search of defense jobs. “I realized that if I stayed at home, of course I’d probably finish my schooling, but I’d probably end up working in some white woman’s kitchen or something,” Green remembered. “I had no growth or potential.”
When she moved to Sacramento, Green was hired as a inventory clerk at McClellan Air Force Base, counting nuts, bolts, and screws. At the base, she became best friends with native Californian Barbara Covington, who had recently found work as a typist. The pay was good and the work was interesting — and critical to the war effort. But McClellan, like all military installations, was strictly segregated. “They wanted the blacks to all be in one place,” Covington recalls. “You know, I marvel now at how well we took it. You know? We made the best of it. We really did. We made the best of it. And we tried to get as much out of it as we could.”
After the war, returning minority veterans, who had fought for freedom overseas, often found themselves once again facing the same discrimination and prejudice they had left behind. “I never did appreciate going to work at night,” John Gray remembered. “And the police officer would stop you and say, ‘Hey boy, where you going?’ And when you come to answer him he’d say, ‘You’ve got your hat on. Take your hat off when you talk to a white man.’ And that kind of stuff. And I worked all night, just about, at the railroad. And didn’t have a car, so I had to walk home. I cried all the way home.”
The segregated armed forces in which Gray had served finally began to be integrated by Executive Order 9981 in 1948. And in the decades after victory was won overseas, black veterans like him would play a crucial role in the postwar struggle for civil rights, once again putting their lives on the line to assure that victory would be won at home as well.
Almost a million African Americans entered the industrial labor force during the war. By 1944 African Americans accounted for 25% of the workers in foundries and 12% in both the shipbuilding and steel industries.
Race-related riots occurred in 47 cities during the war.
The government spent $100 million on recruiting workers by the thousands from Mexico. The imported workers, known as braceros, worked in 21 states. In 1944 they harvested crops worth $432 million.
Despite their treatment at home, African Americans served their country with honor.
Latino and Native Americans proved to be valuable soldiers in all fields of battle.